Sunday, 13 December 2009

A seasonal poem 'Hieroglyph Moth' from The Treekeeper's Tale

For years I'd kept a postcard of a tropical hieroglyph moth bought at the Natural History Museum in London. It gave me a particular feeling, those hieroglyph colours on its white furry wings:

As I was writing my last collection The Treekeeper's Tale and had already written two "moth" poems, 'Atlas Moth' and 'Moon Moths (in the Day Room)', I thought surely it's time for me to write that hieroglyph moth, so I did. The poem for me has some of the feeling I associate with the visual image, the colour language on those snow-wings, and the meaning is meant to be quite open-ended, though it makes me think of how I learnt English when I was seven, the newness of the language and the country (mid-Wales) I was having to adapt to from Paris. How hard I found it until someone gave me a picture dictionary. There were the English words below the pictures and after that it all came clear. The three moth poems are in The Treekeeper's Tale, along with other ice and snow poems 'Siberian Ice Maiden', 'Frozen Horses' and much else.

Hieroglyph Moth

When the white ermine wings

opened at night

like a book of frost

smoking in the dark,

I understood the colours of vowels

painted on moth fur –

the black, red, saffron signs

of a new language.

Antennae grew from my forehead,

my tongue was restless in its chrysalis.

I felt lift-off

as if my bones had melted.
I stepped out into the snow –

not even an exoskeleton to protect me

in this strange country.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Video of my poem What the Water Gave Me

Here's a video of me reading 'What the Water Gave Me (VI)' from my next collection What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo, to be published by Seren in May 2010. This was filmed at the Sha'ar International Poetry Festival in Israel by Asher Gal last October at the Hebrew and Arabic Theatre in Jaffa. There are six poems in the collection based on Kahlo's painting of that name, interwoven throughout the book.
I'll post photos from the festival and of Israel soon.

In Kahlo's painting she is lying in her bath surrounded by scenes from her life and paintings. This sixth of my WtWGM poems is more a version than a literal interpretation.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Poetry from Art reading at Tate Modern

Poetry from Art: a public reading by poets on the Tate Modern course. 
Monday 23rd November, 6.45 – 8.45

This is my fourth year of tutoring poetry writing courses at Tate Modern and this year the course has expanded to three terms. This autumn term will culminate in a reading open to the public. 25 poets have been working in the magical setting of Tate Modern, when the galleries were quiet and closed to the public. They wrote poems in response to works from the permanent collections (including Anselm Kiefer's Palm Sunday), from current exhibitions (John Baldessari: Pure Beauty and Pop Life: Art in a Material World) and past exhibitions. You are invited to hear their poems in the unique surroundings of Tate Modern’s autumn exhibition John Baldessari: Pure Beauty.
Level 4, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
Admission free, booking essential as seating is limited 

For tickets call 020 7887 8888 or book online

                                Palm Sunday by Anselm Kiefer (Energy & Process)

                         Hotel International by Tracey Emin

                 Brain Cloud by John Baldessari

                  Untitled by Maurizio Cattelan (Pop Life)

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Interview in Horizon Review & Poetry at Tate Modern

Issue 3 of Horizon Review has just gone online and includes Michelle McGrane's interview with me, Dreams, Spirits and Visions. Michelle also has two fine poems featured from her forthcoming collection The Suitable Girl which I highly recommend.

Last night was the first session of my Poetry from Art course at Tate Modern. Twenty-seven of us sat in Anselm Kiefer's installation 'Palm Sunday' in the Energy & Process collection and soaked up the uprooted palm tree and its thirty-nine vitrines. I can gaze and gaze into these and always see new things among the ghostly plants and pods bursting from cracked clay, smoke, earth, ash, ladders, flying clothes and scratched words. I handed out a hat containing lines from Paul Celan's poems (huge influence on Kiefer), carefully selected but picked at random to incorporate in a 5 minute quatrain, then asked everyone to introduce themselves by offering the group a gift line from their resulting quatrains. These were poems in themselves. After discussion of Celan's techniques (twisting language to say the unsayable, in his case the aftermath of the holocaust), everyone had ten minutes in which to respond to the installation in a poem, aided by selections from the list of gift lines.

The results were impressive and rather moving, as one by one, each participant stood in front of
'Palm Sunday' and read out their first drafts. The course is launched! I've been planning it for months and thrilled with the results so far, but it never fails to amaze me how people can write to order in such a short time. Perhaps pressure is the key. Next week we are in the John Baldessari: Pure Beauty exhibition and I'm plotting writing games for his extraordinary new ocean installation 'Brain/Cloud', if Tate confirm we can keep the AV on that evening. This is also where we will hold the public reading at the end of the course on November 23rd. Book early if you'd like to come and hear the poems written on the course, entry is free but seating limited.

I've encouraged the poets to email me their works in progress but guess I'll have to respond on the hoof as next Tuesday I'm off to Tel Aviv to take part in the ninth Sha'ar International Poetry Festival, and I get back on Sunday night, just before Week 3 in the Pop Life exhibition, and after that I'm off to do lots of things in the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, so an exciting time ahead.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Tezcatlipoca & Guest blog for Bernardine Evaristo

This week I'm delighted to be a guest on Bernardine Evaristo's blog. Bernardine's latest novel Blonde Roots made the Orange Prize Longlist, then was shortlisted for the Orange Youth Panel Award, which it won. My guest blog is titled A Suitcase-full of Hummingbirds and explores the relationship between images and my poems and how I draw on my training as an artist in my poetry. This image from my guest post of a suitcase-full of hummingbirds in pyjamas prompted me to write my poem 'The Strait-Jackets' in The Zoo Father.

One source of imagery for me has been Mexico, both Frida Kahlo and Aztec mythology. I love this animation of Tezcatlipoca the Aztec night jaguar/ trickster god, twin to the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl. I used Aztec mythology in my third collection
The Huntress, all about my mother who suffered from severe mental illness and seemed to me as a child and teenager to be a powerful trickster, always changing faces, some quite terrifying. However, the fire/ice jaguar in this animation is a beautiful creature, and I hold on to the idea that there was some beauty within her under the terror.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Anselm Kiefer

I'm researching for my Poetry from Art course which starts at Tate Modern on 19th October, enthralled as always by some of the art, and hoping we can start in the Palm Sunday room by the German artist Anselm Kiefer which is in the permanent display Energy & Process on Level 5. There's not that much space in the Kiefer room and the group's large – 26 poets plus one Tate staff and myself. If they let us work in there I guess we'll set the chairs in two rows against the back wall, facing the installation. If we're not allowed then we could work in the room next door and walk in to write.

Anselm Kiefer is a deep-thinking, spiritual artist, and will be a stark contrast to the Pop Life: Art in a Material World exhibition where we'll be working in later weeks, and to the ironic cool of John Baldessari. But in each show there are pieces I am getting very excited about working with. For now, I'll leave these images to speak for themselves, but am collecting words towards writing about them, and more importantly, towards fun ways for the class to write about them. But whenever I peer into those vitrines behind the powerful palm presence, I see new misty shapes emerge.

For our last session, on Monday 23rd November, we'll be giving a public reading of poems written during this and previous courses, in the Pure Beauty: John Baldessari show on level 4, 6.45 to 8.45pm. Details will soon be up on the Tate Modern website, (click on Talks & Discussions and Courses & Workshops).
If you'd like to come, early booking is essential as space is limited . Entry is free.

Monday, 28 September 2009

King's Lynn Poetry Festival

I arrived lunchtime at King's Lynn rail station after a lightning journey catching up with Moniza Alvi and Susan Wicks, to the traditional champagne reception on the platform. After I made a dash to the station loo (no working loos on the train) we refreshed ourselves courtesy of the always-welcoming-and-smiling festival director Tony Ellis. This was my second time at King's Lynn. Last time, I have a faint recollection there was also a bagpipe player. In the photo, from left to right: Richard McKane, Susan Wicks, John Hartley Williams, Annie Freud, Kit Wright, Moniza Alvi, PP, and Larissa Miller from Moscow. Also on the platform to meet us were our assorted hosts who would offer up their houses for lodging and ferry us about, and a group of volunteers who help Tony run the festival. I met my hosts, Maryanna and Roger, and later their dog Samba (a cross between a border collie and black Alsation) and their two hens Lupin and Clover. They warned me as I'd answered positive to "dog tolerant" that I'd drawn the short straw, but the moment I entered their home I felt thoroughly at ease and long-strawed. Roger would later show me his unique cabinet of antique bird eggs. But first, lunch at the director's house.

More champagne, which I declined, as my school visit loomed. Rob Elwes, who I'd already met on Twitter, attempted to whisk me away as I fumbled for the note where important info was jotted, such as name of school and teacher contact. By now Tony's house was heaving so we battled through the kitchen and made our escape, since my school was a fair distance, the exact whereabouts neither of us were entirely sure of, nor the age group, which turned out to be 13-year-olds. Quick flick through books for okay-poems-for-any-age en route. But I was prepared for all eventualities and had xeroxed pics to circulate with poems. The class's burning question was "Miss, are you famous?" And their answer to my question: "How many modern poets have you heard of?" was "Only you miss" – a sobering thought. One boy though has ambitions to become a poet and most had written some poems in class.

I kicked off with 'The Strait-Jackets', showed them the photo that sparked it (40 hummingbirds in a suitcase) and we discussed how I made the poem, what a metaphor was (silence), simile (they knew), and so on. Where were my rhymes, they wondered. The story of Ruschi transporting the birds by suitcase for air travel had them hooked. Further chat about travels,
China, the Great Wall (ooh!), and did they know what "primeval" meant? "Of course! We've seen it on telly!" One mile high waterfalls, 2,000 feet high trees (how high is that Miss? Umm...) and out came my pics of atlas moths, in real-time eye-popping size so we knew what we were talking. Magical silence.

I settled into my lodgings, and dashed to the evening reading – Susan Wicks, who was here as stunningly original French poet Valérie Rouzeau's translator (but Valerie had gastric flu so didn't make it) read her translations and her own exquisite poems, Moniza (still recovering from gastric flu but luminous – 'Mermaid', 'Europa' and 'How the World Split in Two' never fail to thrill anew), and Michael Hulse who read the best poem about the grinding and creation of pigments I've ever heard.

It's one of those festivals where all the poets attend all each others' readings, so I had the pleasure of a first acquaintance with a number of new-to-me voices – Annie Freud (wow), Basque poet Eli Tolaretxipi, and one of my co-readers on Saturday afternoon, Lachlan Mackinnon. Must get that poem by Kit Wright about Roy Orbinson's 'Only the Lonely', just thinking of it has me giggling "not only the lonely, Roy, but simply the pimply, nearly the bleary and lastly the ghastly." I've also come away with an image which won't dislodge of a polar bear in John Hartley Williams' living-room during his Dove Cottage residency, and a very absurd dialogue with said bear a là Ionesco theatre. Two morning panel discussions (one of which was hijacked for a celebration as this is the 25th year of this splendid festival and Michael Hulse had secretly published an anthology for Tony with contributions from us all), and
after-reading parties, have mingled in the imagination. I do remember a serious discussion with Michael about God, atheism and aliens in the early hours of Saturday morning and vivid recollections of his nine-week-old daughter Agnes.

My next festival is Warwick Words, where I'll be reading in the Kozi Bar at 11am on Sunday 4 October. After that I go to Israel's Sha'ar International Poetry Festival, and then Aldeburgh, and in between there's classes in Tate Modern with 26 writers, bang in the middle of the Pop Life and John Baldessari new shows.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Bill Viola's video installations & The Zoo Father

Bill Viola is one of my favourite artists. I have a video by him called The Passing, and when I held Poetry School workshops in my house back in 1998, we all huddled around my small tv to watch it. The students had never seen anything like it before. The video was about his dying mother and even has her last breath, amplified. The first work of his I saw was 'Room for St John of the Cross'. It led me to read St John of the Cross's poems and the writings of St Theresa of Avila – two Spanish mystics.

This is a still from 'Five Angels for the New Millennium'. Another multi-video installation is called 'Ocean Without A Shore.' These remind me of a dream I had before I wrote my second collection The Zoo Father. I dreamt of returning to the base of Angel Falls, into a kind of church (Viola's 'The Messenger' was installed in Durham Cathedral). The spray of the immense falls resembled whirling bridal lace, but gradually I realised there was a gigantic face in the tumbling sprays – my father's. I hadn't seen him for thirty-five years and never expected to hear from him again, but a few days after this dream I received a letter summoning me to visit him in Paris. And that's how I started writing this collection, with the 'zoo' father both in Paris and in the Amazonian Lost World.

Room for St John of the Cross

This is 'The Messenger'. A naked man slowly floats towards the surface of a water wall. His face breaks through the wall and he lets out a long-held breath, takes a deep breath then floats back into the blue-black distance. This had particular resonance for me as my father was dying of emphysema, and could only breathe with the help of supplementary oxygen from an oxygen recycler machine. He found talking hard, yet I wanted him to tell me about his life. I am attempting to write an expanded fiction account of The Zoo Father story in my first novel.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Cover art of The Treekeeper's Tale

This is the cover image of my latest poetry collection The Treekeeper's Tale. I made the artwork while I was in the Sculpture School at the Royal College of Art in 1986. It was called 'Wound' then, but I've since renamed it 'Treekeeper'. It was one of the sculptures in my MA degree show. The studios were in the sheds behind the Natural History Museum in Kensington Gore, and a few of the birdskulls came from the skips, though most were found on beaches, woods, or bought. The monkey skull was stolen during the show. There was another student who we called the Bone King and he and I used to swap finds. The face is a lifecast, cast into fibreglass with white polyester resin filling. The relief was mainly white with green, rose and red tints.

I loved working in my studio, and the way artists can be in their own created worlds. I miss that about being a poet – now that I have an 'office' rather than my world made physical. But there are compensations, and ultimately metaphor can become a realer world to me than one made of stuff. A poem is a house and each stanza is a room. It has always been important for me to be able to make an alternative world I can live in. This world may be located faraway, so my poems are often situated in Venezuela, Nepal or Kazakhstan. Sometimes they are both here (where I live or have lived) and there, the two superimposed.

In The Treekeeper's Tale those giant coast redwood habitats might be in zoos, or in a glasshouse at Kew Gardens. Many of the poems in the book are about 2,000-year-old people, creatures, or excavated museum objects (horses in permafrost, ice-preserved mummies, a Galilean fishing boat), so this transporting of locales is also on a temporal plane, from the deep past. The redwood trees are 2,000 years old and 2,000 feet high. Someone's sculptures? Hermits lived in the lightning-struck ones. They lived inside the sculptures. It might be uncomfortable, damp, but the trunk could be a kind of exoskeleton, protecting the inhabitant.

What would it be like to be half human half tree? Perhaps that's what I was after in my sculpture. It was only a small piece (3' diameter). I was never satisfied with my artworks but it had a quietness, a listening-ness. When I lived with my mother as a teenager I taught myself to vanish into myself, to be there but not be there, for safety. So I have a fascination with altered states and how to travel faraway into yourself yet out of yourself. I wonder what other people see in this piece and in the object-poems?

Monday, 27 July 2009

'Two Golden Eagles' from The Treekeeper's Tale

This is Saykhan the golden eagle in the Tien Shan mountains near Almaty. He was heavy! My nose is red because it's minus 20 degrees. I was in Kazakhstan in January 2008 tutoring 28 Kazakh and Uzbek writers with Tobias Hill for the British Council's New Silk Road project, and on our day off I asked if we could go up into the mountains which tantalised from my hotel window. And there he was. For 200 tenge (80p) we could hold him for a pic. These creatures catch wolves! I tried to write a poem about what this felt like, in my latest book The Treekeeper's Tale, and the closest I got was to describe it as like falling in love, that shock of the other, with all the wonder and fear intermixed. The poem is in two parts:

Two Golden Eagles


Holding Saykhan is unexpected as meeting you
after all those years on my own.

Here in the Tien Shan where it’s minus twenty degrees,

with this sudden weight on my gauntlet,

I peer into tawny eyes, see the wolves he’s killed,

swooping onto their napes to knock them down.

If he draws blood he’ll attack but the glove

protects me from his talons and he bears

those jesses that bind him to me.

If he took off he’d lift me with him –

the way we rise into sheer air above the rolling steppe of our bed,

our wing-feathers icicles

while we glide through snow’s embroidered sheets,

our faces cataracts of light.


This time it’s you holding a female golden eagle

and I’m her, gripping your hand through the gauntlet,

my hood pulled off as if for the hunt.

You’ve propped me on your arm for a photo

where we’ll always be together.

You’ve noted my beak, my two-inch claws,

how piercing my eyesight is,

and how at home I am in this biting cold.

For the moment I trust you, even when

your fingers feel my wings, so that although tethered,

I start flying in my mind.

And when you follow on horseback to claim

my quarry, I let you believe it’s yours.

I wait until you allow me to feed.

Yes, the female golden eagle is larger and is the one used for wolf hunts. This photo is of the poet Dauren Kassenov who attended my workshops in Almaty and here he's at Nauryz, the Kazakh New Year festival in March, with his daughter, holding a female eagle. He had just taken part in the yearly traditional poetry battles with audiences of 25,000. Sounds like the Eisteddfod, which I used to sing in when I was a child, only much harder because these 'battles' are improvised. Two poets go on stage and have to answer each other's improvised poems. The audience decides who wins. Even scarier than holding an eagle!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Lost World Part Three

This is Autana Tepui in Venezuela's Lost World, a plateau sacred to the Pemons who consider it the stump of their tree of life. It's pierced by a cave-tunnel through which the sun's rays shine. I went to the Lost World in 1993 and 1995 and wish I could go back. So here I am instead trawling the web for images.

It's hard to think that I climbed Mount Roraima below in 1995. There's a 'ramp' I scrambled up on the other side. It was really hard for me to do this but once I'd dreamt of being up there sitting over the edge with my legs dangling into space I had to do it.

I flew low over the great plateau Auyantepuy once, it took ages as it's so vast. I think it's the closest I've come to visiting another planet, the terrain was so otherworldly, with its criss cross of canyons and gullies, its quartz valleys and cities of columns, its jasper creeks. I often dream I'm living up there and am so sorry to wake up and find I'm not.

So what was it like on one of those sky-islands? I felt like an intruder. The first thing that hits you is the quiet, and the way your voice bounces off the prehistoric rock formations then seems to echo out into space over the Gran Sabana and riverine jungles below, a line of cliff-bordered plateaus rising out of the mist. The surface is made up of the oldest rocks on the earth, eroded and twisted into monsters. There's cushions of carnivorous plants bordered by pink quartz sand, and rockpools inside rockpools, concentric circles of them. I bathed in one alone, away from the group, while they went searching for the oilbird cave, led by Pemon guides who got lost in the labyrinths and quagmires and had to return as the mother of all storms started up. Night was spent in 'El Hotel', tents pitched under an overhang, but it was impossible to sleep with the dinosaurs running rampage (their roars and lightning tongues). According to the Pemon we had talked too loudly on their 'Mother of all Waters' and stirred up the local dragon.

I've tried to write about the experience in my first collection Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998) which is out of print though there are some copies on and at the Poetry Book Society. As usual I'm not satisfied with the results. I'm writing a novel now, part set in Paris, part in the Lost World. Which has plunged me back into this hard-to-capture-in-words landscape.

Monday, 13 July 2009

The International Literary Quarterly editor interviewed

The prestigious webzine The International Literary Quarterly has only published seven issues but has already established itself as a leading literary journal. It was founded by editor Peter Robertson and has a dazzling panel of consulting editors. Contributors have included Meena Alexander, George Szirtes, Irina Ratushinskaya, Gao Xingjian, W.N. Herbert, Mimi Khalvati and Marina Warner. Each issue features a guest artist, among these the fabulous Tom Phillips. Peter generously published five of my poems from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo in Issue 6 .

Peter Robertson was born in Glasgow and lives in London and Buenos Aires, having spent more than ten years in Latin America. He has published fiction, literary translation of Spanish and French authors, and critical articles. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2007, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 2008. He launched The International Literary Quarterly in November 2007. Here he answers some questions about this exciting new publication and the context from which it has sprung.

Why did you start The International Literary Quarterly?

All of my decisions are dictated by instinct. I wanted to create an international review, a literary broad church that would shun any idea of ethnocentricity, that would carry both creative writing and more academic writing, that would break down distinctions I consider to be artificial, for example by bringing literature and the plastic arts closer together, and that would be a vehicle that would eventually publish literature in many different languages.

What did you edit before and why?

Before I founded Interlitq, I was an Associate Editor of Mad Hatters’ Review, a New-York based webzine. In that capacity, I conceived and edited two features for MHR: “Viva Caledonia”, a feature that showcased work by many Scottish writers alongside artwork by Calum Colvin; and the first part of “Eclectic England”. I had planned to do a second part for EE but, for a number of reasons, I decided to branch out alone and start my own literary review. Having pulled off the two features I mentioned, I believed I could be successful in such a venture. I had a clear vision of what I wanted a literary review to be and set about making it become a reality.

Why did you decide to edit an online magazine?

Because the Internet is not the future but is, in fact, the present. Its massive reach is such an advantage. Potentially, the review could come to be read by vast numbers. One of our priorities as I speak is to build up our readership which is increasing every day. My overriding objective is to ensure that the best literature is made available to an ever greater percentage of the reading public all over the world. It is heartening to know that, if we publish, say, a story in the review, it could be read by many thousands while, in many paper publications, it would only be read by hundreds. I know that there are those dissenting voices who still find Internet publication anathema but it seems to me that such a position is more and more out of touch.

How did Interlitq get so high quality and so international so quickly?

Thank you for your kind words, Pascale. I have worked very hard and continue to do so. As I mentioned before, the review’s particular brief was to be international and I approached authors, who might prove to be potential contributors, from many different continents. Also, once Issue 8 comes out in August, the review will have over sixty distinguished Consulting Editors and, once again, these editors reflect a rich diversity of different cultures. With regard to quality, that is what I have always aimed for and, I assure you, our standard will not go down.

What are you after in submissions?

Fluid, intelligent, original and trenchant writing, whether this be prose, poetry or literary criticism.

What is life like in Buenos Aires and can you tell me more about the literary life there?

After ten years here I doubt I can be objective as I guess I’m quite “Argentinized”. It’s a process that’s bound to happen whether one wants it to or not. For all his remorseless intelligence, and limpid yet strenuous prose, I think that Naipaul is slightly severe when he says, with regard to Argentina, in his essay “The Return of Eva Peron”, “if you can live there you can live anywhere”. Mind you, I can see what he is getting at as this country is very far from being stable, either in political or economic terms, and there is still a tendency to authoritarianism and machismo. I believe that anyone spending a significant amount of time here will see beyond the decadent facades of the once-elegant avenues and perceive that this is not a diluted European culture but essentially a Latin American country. On this note, and taking certain of these considerations into account, Huntington, in his magisterial book, “The Clash of Civilizations”, does not consider Argentina to be “the West”.

With regard to literary life here, while I do know some Argentine writers, it is strangely the case that my links with Chile happen to be much stronger. I visit Chile, a country I feel passionately about, whenever I can, and I will in fact be back there soon, and, as I say, I know a great many writers and publishers there. As it happens, I have been working as the Translations Editor on an anthology of Chilean literature, to be edited by Marjorie Agosín, and which I expect will be published sometime in 2010. I would hazard that, at least as far as prose is concerned, in general terms Chilean writing is more precise and concrete, less concerned with abstraction and the labyrinthine. I wonder if this is due to the fact that, in cultural terms, English influence is stronger in Chile whereas in Argentina French aesthetic models are held up as the ideal.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Poems from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo

My next collection is called What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo, to be published by Seren in May 2010. I've more or less finished it, just tinkering with a few last poems and editing the manuscript. It's taken me ten years to write, around other collections, and I've really enjoyed it. I trained as a visual artist so it's been like slipping into that previous alter-ego. Her range is quite narrow, mainly self-portraits, and that's been a challenge I've relished, while being aware of needing to make enough variety in the poems so they are hopefully distinct from each other. A few of the poems are fairly close representations of the paintings but most I think of as versions or parallels (as if I were painting my own after hers), and some of her paintings are represented by several poems. There are six versions of the title poem 'What the Water Gave Me'.

I'm sometimes asked why I write about Frida and how it all started. When I was at the Royal College of Art studying for my sculpture MA, a visiting Fellow said my studio reminded him of the Blue House and had I seen it, did I know her work. I didn't really, just one or two paintings. We weren't taught about women artists then, but I investigated her and felt an affinity. I'd been making lifesize transparent women out of epoxy resin and fibreglass and clear embedding resin casts of women with thorns and birds embedded inside them, iridescent metallic beetles on their wombs.

After I wrote
The Zoo Father (my second collection) I wanted to write poems about sex but couldn't see how to. Then I looked at her painting 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' and that's what I started to do, in her voice, except the sex was merged with the accident she had suffered as a teenager when a tramcar crashed into her bus and a handrail pierced her back and exited through her vagina. That accident pierced her whole life. I went to the Blue House several times and wrote 14 poems which are in The Wounded Deer published by Smith Doorstop in 2005. I didn't know about the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition
at Tate Modern then but was invited to do a launch reading in the gallery which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, reading next to her paintings.

I didn't expect to write any more Frida poems but a few years later another cluster emerged, then more. I thought I'd be lucky to have thirty but now there are around fifty. Like
The Zoo Father, the poems came in twos or threes a day when they came. One of my favourite paintings is 'The Wounded Deer' or 'The Little Deer'.

I've written two poems about this. The first 'The Wounded Deer', which is the title poem of my pamphlet, is a fairly close interpretation of the painting:

The Wounded Deer

I have a woman’s face
but I’m a little stag,

because I had the balls

to come this far into the forest,

to where the trees are broken.

The nine points of my antlers

have battled

with the nine arrows in my hide.

I can hear the bone-saw

in the ocean on the horizon.

I emerged from the waters

of the Hospital for Special Surgery.

It had deep blue under-rooms.

And once, when I opened my eyes

too quickly after the graft,

I could see right through

all the glass ceilings,

up to where lightning forked

across the New York sky

like the antlers of sky-deer,

rain arrowing the herd.

Small and dainty as I am

I escaped into this canvas,

where I look back at you

in your steel corset, painting

the last splash on my hoof.

But the later poem, 'The Little Deer' plays more with the deer as nahual (Aztec alter ego) idea I think. I wrote it very fast one evening just as I was getting up from my chair and drinking a glass of wine before cooking (perhaps the only poem I've written under the influence!). The first lines came into my head with a certain feeling about wanting to write a poem about all illness. It's in the current issue of Poetry Review which is a fantastic issue full of juicy poems so I'm very pleased to see it there.

The Little Deer

Little deer, I’ve stuffed all the world’s diseases inside you.

Your veins are thorns

and the good cells are lost in the deep dark woods

of your organs.

As for your spine, those cirrus-thin vertebrae

evaporate when the sun comes out.

Little deer too delicate for daylight,

your coat of hailstones is an icepack on my fever.

Are you thirsty?

Rest your muzzle against the wardrobe mirror

and drink my reflection –
the room pools and rivers about us

but no one comes

to stop my bed from sliding down your throat.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Bird Artists by Laurie Byro

The Bird Artists is Laurie Byro's first chapbook, and I urge you to buy it. She received both 2nd and 3rd place for the 2008-9 IBPC Poems of the Year. She lives in New Jersey and I first encountered her work when I judged the IBPC competition for three consecutive months and she won (anonymously) twice, with 'Wolf Dreams' and then the title poem 'The Bird Artists'. You can order it online at:

"In this spellbinding debut, Laurie Byro creates a magical world of rituals against harm. Precisely textured, transformative and feral, The Bird Artists has the force of myth and folklore but is firmly anchored in the quotidian. These richly wrought poems linger on and draw me back to marvel at their compact power."

That's what I wrote on the back cover. Mark Doty wrote of 'Wolf Dreams' when it won a prize he judged: "Appealing sexy and strange, it's a pleasure to read these images of transformation, which create a vivid physical sense of an animal body."

Wolf Dreams

I wasn’t sure what he wanted of me; the ice

in winter birches had made the forest slouch

into spring. All that winter I peeled

and sucked papery bark for the sweet taste.
I recognized him from his red tongue,

the furtive runs when I entered his dream

and we crawled along the forest floor, repenting
the dark. I had nothing to bargain with,

no deal to make him human. The night

was filled with briars and salt. In the summer
the air became thick with honeysuckle, slick

with mating. Beetles droned in messy beds

of clover. We slunk along, weeds stroking
my belly. I hadn’t yet decided which life

was better. Grass combed the plume of my tail.

The nights were crystal sharp. I waggled
my slit high, what was left of my breasts pushed

into a pile of decaying leaves. Who cared

how many and how often, I was not entirely his.
Eyes of owls glittered in the sleep of trees, tree frogs
sang in a green-robed choir. The moon clamped

its yellow tooth into my shoulder. I took the whole
night inside. What was to become of us? I had

packed away my white Juliet cap and veil for just

such an occasion. I held him like a warm
peach in my palm, longed for his juice to run

down my chin. Most nights I didn’t care about

the names they gave me. I held my fingers
out to him, felt the tug as my ring fell off, carried

my limbs down to the entrance of his den,

planted a birch just outside his home
as a token of my loyalty. I was free

of the chains of consequence. I gave birth

to his amber-eyed bastard who without hesitation
he devoured. When he becomes old and says

he always dreams of me, I shall make myself

a meal of him, savor his voluptuous tongue,
and suck all the bitterness from his bones.

He will not make such promises again.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Translating Yang Lian's 'The Valley and the End: A Story'

Yang Lian is an internationally acclaimed Chinese poet who was born in Switzerland and grew up in Beijing. He was one of the group of ‘misty’ or ‘obscure’ poets who published the literary magazine Jintian (Today). His poem ‘Norlang’ was criticised by the Chinese government during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign. He became an exile after the Tiananmen massacre, first lived in New Zealand, and now in London.

He has a new extraordinary collection coming out from Bloodaxe
this October, Lee Valley Poems, about the Lee Valley where he has made his home. The poems have been translated by W N Herbert, Arthur Sze, Polly Clark, Antony Dunn, Jacob Edmond, Brian Holton, Fiona Sampson, and I have translated five. In 2007-8 Lian devised and organised the first Yellow Mountain Chinese/English Poetry Festival, in China and the UK, and I was fortunate to take part, in particular to climb Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), with Tang Xiaodu, Wang Xiaoni, W N Herbert, Robert Minhinnick, Kate Griffin and others.

Lian is reading at the Lemon Monkey Cafe on Monday 29 June with Katy Evans-Bush, Rob Mackenzie and Andrew Philip, 7pm at 188 Stoke Newington High Street, London. Do come. I will be reading my translation of another of his fabulous Lee Valley poems 'The Journey'.

Here is my article about translating 'The Valley and the End: A Story' followed by his poem. This article was commissioned by Patricia McCarthy and appears in Agendathe Welsh Issue Vol 44 Nos 2-3, May 2009, accompanied by the poem:

Translating Yang Lian’s ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’

“You close the book then close the riverbanks”

The history of Chinese poetry is rooted in the Chinese landscape. This is why we’ve come to the legendary Yellow Mountain to translate each other’s poems, a whole group of us, including W.N. Herbert, Robert Minhinnick, Wang Xiaoni, Yang Lian and myself. This is where the Yellow Emperor sought the elixir of immortality from an islet in one of the misty ‘seas’ that form in the valleys between peaks.

To the ‘deep-reality’ poet Yang Lian, the Tang Dynasty tradition cannot be ignored. His images are loaded with it. It’s as if Yellow Mountain, this mist-enshrouded idyll so familiar from scroll paintings, lies as a wash on each blank page as he starts to write. And from each page, fog swirls to form ghost-valleys, rivers of exile. Peaks rise with names such as Bookcase Peak and Writing Brush Bursts into Bloom. In the ‘seas’, images flower then fade. The fog is thick as cocoon silk – opaque enough to hold memories of London in its weave. On a bank of cumulus Walthamstow Marshes floats. I glimpse dragon-boats, an iron bridge, a marina café where a couple confront one another. No sooner do they appear than their faces melt like sugar lumps in tea. There are photos on the wall, faded sepia shots. Outside, a swan slices the water and it starts to rain. The café vapourises with a furnace-hiss.

The long raindrops are chopsticks stabbing the surface, breaking it up. A bath floats between the fish-rings. The woman’s six-year-old self lies inside the white enamel, and as the sun sets, its rays tint her bathwater red. A flock of birds are nailed to the sky by the clock’s hour hand, which in Mandarin is a needle not a hand.

So while I wait on the mountain steps, wedged in the crowd, I mull over how to make this image work in English. There’s plenty of time, the queue waiting to climb Celestial Peak is packed with Chinese tourists. My task is to render the original poem as naturalistically as possible, as if it had originally been written in English, yet preserve those images, now stone, now mist, that merge into one another. A small white moth lands on the twisted lower branch of Welcoming Guests Pine. He has a tiny black-and-gold striped mountain range painted across his wings, and as I wait for the queue to move, he soars back up to the sky, taking his miniature Huangshan with him.

And now I’ve climbed the crag of the highest peak, and it’s time to descend the too-narrow stone steps carved into black rock with buff stripes, this sky-tiger I’m riding through the haze, and I have to concentrate on each step so as not to fall off the unfenced razor drop on my right. I chant the names to myself to fight off vertigo – Lotus Pistil Peak, Cloud-Dispelling Pavilion, Echo Wall. I reach the rock where a monk once drew the character for lightning and made it crack, and I have to pass right through this slit towards Jade Screen Peak. At times the striated rock sways like the banks of comfrey and chamomile I’ve squeezed through on the Marshes, the scent of meadowsweet making me giddy. Over the Carp’s Backbone to the Gold Cock Crowing at Heaven’s Gate and I’m pushing harder now as it’s getting late and the telpher shuts at dusk. The mountain will close and press me flat as a flower in a book.

Flat as Walthamstow Marshes, my neck of the woods, now Lian’s locale, only he lives on the Hackney side and I in Walthamstow. We might as well be on Yellow Mountain in this desolate poem where mouths hang from walls, where light flashes off the river Lee like a tiger’s pelt, one stripe in London, one in China.

Imagine my surprise as he sits in my tiny study, the mournful cries of geese crossing the window’s sky, while he conjures the marshes in faltering Yanglish, and I search the clouds for the right words to translate his lines. Geese, which have flown over my house all these years, suddenly are the wild geese of exile, their calls evoking homesickness as potently as they did in the time of Li Bai writing poems on Celestial Peak.

I’ve lived in North East London for over twenty years now and would have moved away long ago except for that nearby sanctuary, with its head-high wildflowers and the Springfield Marina where ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’ takes place. I’ve often stopped at the small riverside café for a cup of tea and a cake to warm me during walks. Last time I passed it was closed, which was a shame because I wanted to check out those old photos in his poem.

Lian’s images are collages of strangely juxtaposed objects, but he considers his surrealism to be ‘deep reality’ – imagery with roots, rather than a surrealism that might just be obscure or playful ornament. As a former sculptor I am interested in image-making in my own poems. The pictorial aspect of the Chinese characters fascinates me. Yang Lian’s poetry is a new kind of image-making for British poetry, which tends to stick to straightforward narrative. He isn’t just conjuring the world but remaking it into a system of concentric symbols, an organic collage of deep reality. I question him about every phrase, its sound and sense, until it starts to root in my imagination and re-grow.

In his essay ‘A Wild Goose Speaks To Me’ (Poetry Review, Spring 2006) he wrote: “Give me a single breath, and I will grow roots, penetrate the soil, probe shingle and magma, and hear the sea through every artery and vein of groundwater”. He went on to say, “ ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self”.

In writing his new collection Lee Valley Poems (Bloodaxe, 2009), Yang Lian makes Lee Valley’s waters turn twelve hundred years upstream to their source, which for him is the Tang Dynasty. The further they flow, the nearer he accesses his innermost self. This poem ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’ occurs in a non-time implied by the tenselessness of the Chinese verb, which is a challenge to translate into English. That couple waiting for the end are always on the marshes, sitting in the café, which is simultaneously a Huangshan path. To Lian’s eyes, the café walls are banded Mesozoic rock where Li Bai and Du Fu’s shadows pass, each drunk on their own solitudes. But however heavy the theme and weighted the history, the lines must fly. Like that Huangshan moth bearing a mountain on its wings.

Yang Lian

The Valley and the End: A Story

The days blend into each other – we keep saying the same old things.

The sky is a raincoat with a dripping hem.

Rain taps on white tables in old photos

and on two cups of half-drunk tea. All afternoon we counted the upturned chairs.

Our mouths have hung from the wall for fifty years.


Everywhere is ending. When you stop reading

light leaps from the water’s pelt. When you pull back your hand,

no longer touching the beast’s gorgeous stripes,
your name is the same but sealed off by the weather,

like that loud green on the far bank gradually departing.


A pear tree blocks the balcony

and its spring bedroom full of naked flowers.

On the grass, birds hatch opalescent light.
Our bodies accept the coldness of a past life
by the way they touch and this still makes you wet.

A sugar lump melts an old woman’s squeaking bones –

we can watch her machinery, drop by drop,

leaking tea, swathing her groans

in vapour. Time begins at the next table,

passes the sweetness of the end through our guts.

Fish-rings wait for us outside the window.

We walked over that pale gravel path

to where a million fish eye-socket circles
are pierced by chopsticks of rain – the circles’ centres
choked by the softest diameter.

You close the book then close the riverbanks.

Swan-stares carve this view –
the house, the iron bridge, that silently emerge –
their paddling feet are russet leaves under the water’s surface

where our presence secretly shatters a cloud.


Dive back into the six-year-old’s bathtub.

Just six years old, the body, already smashed open

by a blood-red torrent, has become a dirty word,

the air made even thinner the further back time reels.

What dives back into the girl’s eyes is raw poetry


but it’s not love poetry. Why waste time

by talking about time? We are the valley’s delicacies.

We listen to the weightless horseshoe of the crescent moon

splashing mud on our faces – so cold a reunion

forces us to sink even deeper.


History gradually darkens, replicating our organs.

An old filament secretes a film of twilight.

That gas ring pierces thin fingers,

the flames spurt, hissing five o’clock with a furnace roar –
the entire sky of homing birds, each one nailed to the clock’s hour hand.


Two ends – either yes or no.

Two ends like two people face to face, holding up the same cup

to keep warm – a present tense you spill from your clothes.

Two memories glide between stars at the speed of light,

a black umbrella lifted by a disembodied hand orbits


all sorrow and joy – just to be alive.

While we sit at the table against the blankness of water,

water flows away unnoticed.

The end is never like the sea, rain snuffs out one second

then we forget our past.


Naked sex converges on one point in the sky,

licks the emerald breasts of wild ducks.

Trees in fog are truly beautiful. That old photo

bathed in moonlight is the park inviting you for a stroll.
The night sky is so close, hiding at your back, inviting you to moan fiercely.

Translated from the Chinese by Pascale Petit and the author

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Interview by Oana-Teodora Ionescu

Pascale Petit interviewed by Oana-Teodora Ionescu about writing The Treekeeper's Tale

Oana-Teodora Ionesco is an MA student on Professor Lidia Vianu's MA course at Bucharest University. She has just translated my latest collection The Treekeeper's Tale into Romanian for her MA and here is a transcript of the interview to accompany her translation.

Oana-Teodora Ionescu: Your poetry is very modern and keeps pace with the present times. The first part of your book is dedicated to nature and to the people who have fought to preserve it. Do you believe poetry is powerful enough to raise awareness on ecological matters such as global warming or the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources?

Pascale Petit: Thank you for seeing it as modern and for translating my book! Whether it raises awareness on ecological matters I’m not sure. I suspect that people who read poetry are already aware of the plight of the world’s forests. Although it would be gratifying to think that poetry is read by a wider readership and therefore changes some minds in the UK at least the readership is quite small.

I don’t think of my poems as having messages. I write them because I am compelled to. What I was after was to describe the feeling of listening and attending, of being in the coast redwood forest in the presence of these vast 2,000-year-old beings, which was hard to capture because of the clichés associated with these trees, the outworn media eco-speak. I do have some faith in poetry having the power to advance language and perceptions, having the potential to not follow media awareness but to lead it, through linguistic and imagistic freshness.

OTI: You dedicated the poem 'Treesitter' to “eco-warrior” Julia Butterfly Hill, who treesat Luna, a giant redwood for two years without coming down, in order to save it, but you also wrote a similar poem, 'The Treekeeper’s Tale', where you use the word “guardian”. Why did you feel the need to use two words that practically stand for the same reality?

PP: A treesitter is a contemporary term for someone who lives up a tree to save it from loggers whereas a guardian is a broader term. These poems were two different takes on the double themes of saving the forest and of loneliness. I wrote ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ in the voice of a hermit, as hermits used to live inside lightning-struck hollow redwoods. Hermits intrigue me and when I was a child I was going to be one when I grew up. I lived with my grandmother in mid-Wales then and spent most of my days hiding up trees or inside hedges; they were my secret huts. When I was a teenager and had to live with my mother I thought I would become a reclusive hermit in a hut with a lot of books (probably to get away from her!). I’m also very interested in the hermits of Tang Dynasty China, who were usually poets. When my first marriage ended I spent thirteen years alone. That solitude was both bad and good and in that time my writing improved. As for the word "guardian" it has special connotations for me. I remember my grandmother having to write that she was my guardian on school forms and how I gradually became aware that this was different from ‘parent’. The hermit who lives in the giant tree is its guardian spirit as she was mine.

I wrote ‘Treesitter’ after reading Julia Butterfly Hill’s book
Luna, her account of her treesit. Her descriptions of being right at the top (2,000 feet up!) in all weathers – gales, blizzards, a spring dawn – are enthralling. I was also moved by her tenacity and loneliness during that time.

OTI: I noticed that in some of your poems ('The Treekeeper’s Tale', 'Portrait of a Coast Redwood Forest with Mandolin', 'Nature Singer', 'Creation of the Trees') music goes hand in hand with nature and art. Do you use music as a catalyst for creation?

I usually write in silence. I love the quiet and when neighbours are noisy I wear earplugs. I am not a very musical person and know little about it, but I like the idea of music and of the correspondences between the arts and all living things. My favourite sound is birdsong. The ‘Nature Singer’ was Charles Kellogg who learned how to use his larynx like a bird’s syrinx and spent all his time in the woods, acquiring powers with his voice such as how to control a flame. ‘Portrait of a Coast Redwood’ is loosely based on Braque’s late studio paintings, especially the ones that feature a semi-abstract mandolin. ‘Creation of the Trees’ is after the painting 'Harmony' by Remedios Varo where she is in the studio creating natural objects such as gems and leaves from musical notes on her stave. I liked her synthesis of music and art.

When I wrote these poems I was influenced by the musicologist Joscelyn Godwin’s books such as
Harmony of the Spheres: Source Book of Pythagorean Tradition in Music and Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: Mysticism in Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 1993, 1995).

OTI: 'Exiled Elm' is the shortest poem in your book, however, it has a very strong message. Personally, I read it as a metaphor of the search for new beginnings. Could the uprooted tree be a metaphor of everyman?

PP: What a lovely idea and thank you for suggesting it. I hope so. I have always been uprooted and when I was young felt that I must be from another planet, so that sensation is behind this poem. I wrote it very quickly, in response to a commission by the sculptor Jilly Sutton, who asked for a poem which had to be exactly twenty-five words, to be engraved in a spiral around a young elm tree she was carving for an exhibition. The elm tree had died of Dutch elm disease. The sculpture has beetles (and other insects) around its trunk, as beetles are the source of the disease. The sculpture sold for a lot of money and it’s strange to think of my poem around its trunk in some mansion. I hadn’t thought of the poem being a search for new beginnings, I just visualized it flying through space searching for a new home.

OTI: In an interview given to Professor Vianu in 2003, you say that one of the reasons you started writing poetry was to escape from your mother. However, the mother figure is a recurrent image especially in the second part, 'Afterlives'. Is poetry a way of facing your rival-mother on your own territory?

PP: Yes I started writing to escape from her into my own world. One of the things poetry may be for me is a way to face her on my territory rather than in her home or in hospital where I felt in her power. When I bring her into my created world I can change her into images I can control. So in ‘The Bee Mother’ she is a queen bee and I’m a worker bee (I had to do all the housework when I was lived with her as a teenager). We can enact bee-sized battles and I can stand up to her and for myself in this form.

OTI: The entire book stands under the sign of surrealism; you take your inspiration not only from Remedios Varo, but also from René Magritte, whose constant shift between reality and illusion was attributed by psychoanalysts to his mother’s early death . Do you believe the relationship with your parents had an influence on your style?

That’s an interesting thought. Perhaps I rebelled against realism because the so-called ‘real’ world was not habitable for me as a child. I don’t believe there is such a thing as common realism and that when people write in that style they are making a mistaken assumption that I share their perception of reality. Surrealism or magical realism, or as the exiled Chinese poet Yang Lian would call it, ‘deep-reality’, are closer to my perception of the world. In my childhood everything always shifted: I moved from country to country, from home to home, from carer to carer (or guardian), from school to school. Life was surreal! My mother had a severe mental illness and I didn’t realize this until later, so at the time it seemed that it was normal to shift seamlessly from an apparent reality to an illusion. She was also domineering and insisted I felt what she felt all the time, so all this empathy made my own identity weak except when I made art.

The issue of art and empathy is an interesting one, and perhaps, although I have a strong sense of self when I start writing a poem, hopefully Keats’ ‘negative capability’ kicks in once I get going and lose myself, but in a voluntary and pleasurable way, not enforced.

OTI: You wrote three poems inspired by Varo that you named 'Creation of…'. In 'Creation of the Himalayas' there is a verse that draws my attention: “We weigh nothing, and our cloth when it’s new weighs less than us before it sets in its stone cage.” How should the unsubstantial be read here?

I love Remedios Varo’s paintings and first came across them in Mexico City. The gold liquid cloth the embroiderers are creating becomes stone when it falls to earth. While still inside the earth it is molten then it sets into earth’s rock crust. In Varo’s painting ‘Embroidering Earth’s Mantle’, which the poem is based on, the embroidering nuns are working in a turret in the sky and the mantle is pouring out like waterfalls. I like the idea that stone might originate from ether and be originally weightless (that is, not bound by the force of gravity). And perhaps it does, if we think of the earth being made from stardust. But when I wrote that line I didn’t think it through like this; the line came and it felt right. What I did feel though is that the earth, beautiful as it is, is a kind of cage for our bodies and I was writing about a yearning for other origins.

Recently someone asked to use this poem ‘Creation of the Himalayas’ as a eulogy at a funeral for a friend who had set out to vanish on Everest. I’m pleased they found the poem useful at this laying-to-rest ceremony.

OTI: If you were to summarize each part of your book in one word or idea, what would those words or ideas be and why?

PP: I titled the four sections of my book ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’, ‘Afterlives’, ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’. These phrases for me sum up each part. ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ because it’s a series of stories by various treekeepers (as in zookeeper) – a treesitter, a nature singer, a canopy explorer, a hermit, and one or two of the tales are told by the trees themselves.

The second and longest section, ‘Afterlives’, contains poems which one way or another deal with afterlives: excavated horses, warriors, a shaman girl retrieved from permafrost, an excavated boat in Galilee, a second marriage, places and parents revisited, and so on. I have always been fascinated by how life unfolds and how unpredictable it is, how miraculous reprises and afterlives are offered, how utterly strange it all is, the tricks and turns of fate.

With ‘War Horse’ I liked the phrase, and it marries life force (the horse) with death force (war). Franz Marc’s blue horse paintings with their luminous colours and portrayal of innocence are a sharp contrast to his experience of World War One. The poems draw phrases from his letters sent to his wife from the front where he was a dispatch rider. He did not describe the horror, not wishing to upset her, but only the quiet moments when he observed horses and he was riding through the forest. He also wrote about his theories on painting and music. She wrote back to him with intricate details of their country idyll and the deer and horses there. I wanted to superimpose this tenderness over the violent reality he was dealing with, to counter violence with art and nature.

I called the last section ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’ to conjure the difference of Chinese culture, and the otherworldliness of that particular poem. Translating these four poets, Du Fu, Yang Lian, Zhou Zan and Zhai Yongming was a privilege, allowing me insights into new imaginations and traditions.

OTI: You teach creative writing, so I assume you get in contact with young poets who want to improve their skills. What should a young poet always bear in mind?

PP: I think imagination can be taught as well as craft. Imaginations can be excited, expanded, enriched. I suggest to beginning poets that they write about what they really want to write about rather than what they think they should write about. I encourage them to engage in serious play, keep it enjoyable, and not to bore themselves in any part of their poems or they will bore the reader. To outpace the inner censor so as to open the channels. To research if it helps them to discover and develop ideas and language, keep notebooks and collect words and lines. I advise them to use all the senses fully and be particular and precise, to use language freshly and surprise themselves. To be free in first drafts but ruthless in editing. Not to be content with partial achievement in a poem, to recast, rewrite and pay attention to detail in the editing so the poem looks cared for. Most of all to read, read, read – classical and contemporary poetry, in their own language and in translation, and other books, whatever feeds their imaginations. I also say these things to myself when I’m trying to write!

OTI: In the same interview (Lidia Vianu, 2003) you said that the Amazonian indigenous cultures had a big influence on your work. What made you choose the Amazon?

PP: The Amazon chose me. I saw a photo of Angel Falls in the remote Lost World of the Venezuelan Amazon and fell in love with the photo. The book it was in was called Waterfalls of the World and Angel Falls was like a wondrous and remotest friend in a book of friends. I went into a travel agent’s to ask if there was a way of getting there and went on my own, twice. The table mountains that surround it felt like home.

I became obsessed with the cloud forest and rainforest and the people who live there – the Pemon tribe, their myths and beliefs about the waterfalls and plateaus. I researched all the Amazonian tribes, especially their rituals and chants. Not long after my second trip to the Lost World I dreamt I was at the base of Angel Falls and my father’s face appeared in the swirling mists. I hadn’t thought about him for years and had not seen or heard from him since he’d vanished when I was eight. A few days after this dream I received a letter from him telling me he was dying and wanted to make contact. So the Amazon is inextricably linked with him in my mind. I think I am also drawn to it because it evokes my Welsh grandmother’s huge garden where I was happy as a child.

OTI: You took part in the Poet to Poet translation project and also in the first Chinese/English Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival. You translated a number of Chinese poets into English. Did you have to make any cultural concessions while translating the poems?

PP: In Zhou Zan’s poem ‘Jay’ I inserted an extra line “who understood the language of birds’ because I thought few UK readers would know who Gong Ye-chang was while a Chinese reader would know what she was referring to. I also cut a couple of her lines from the end of ‘Scapecat’, which in English didn’t add anything extra to the poem.

In Yang Lian’s poems I decided to use conventional punctuation instead of the space gaps which a lot of Chinese poets use in lieu of commas, dashes and full stops. His poems can be quite inaccessible in parts (“Make the reader work!” he urged me) but I did attempt to make more transitions between his (wonderfully) juxtaposed images to render the meaning clearer, hopefully without compromising the original.

OTI: You said that the “Sanctuary word aeries” in ‘Osprey Nests’ could be interpreted as a metaphor for writing. Have you ever felt the need to write your own ars poetica in which to concentrate the essential aspects of your poetry?

PP: My ars poetica is always in flux and so is my poetry so I haven’t done that.

What I said about that line “sanctuary word aeries” was that the osprey’s nest in this poem is a sanctuary. This refuge is made of words and is also a nest. This aerie/ nest is a sanctuary made of words, so here I’m broadening the poem out to be a metaphor for writing. My writing is a sanctuary, not in its subject matter, but in its art-making. Making art is my way of transforming the mess of experience into nest-like shapes of words. I’m thinking of Keats’ letter in which he suggested that a person can create airy citadels, his “two-and-thirty Pallaces” in his mind. “Any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel with the fine web of his soul, full of Symbols for his spiritual eye”. Writing started out as taking refuge in art from a scary home but hopefully might offer refuge to others now.

Of course in this poem these airy citadels against harm might have new implications, such as the threatened ospreys and biosphere.

OTI: Besides writing, what other projects are you involved in at the moment?

PP: Just teaching. I tutor at Tate Modern, teaching poetry writing courses in the galleries in the evening when it’s quiet and the gallery is closed to the general public, which is a wonderful privilege. We use the artworks as starting points for poems. But I suppose this is writing too, it’s my whole world. I love travelling but that again is usually explorations for writing or translation projects.

OTI: Do you feel you have to thank someone for helping you become what you are today?

PP: I am grateful to my maternal grandmother for her love and love of nature.